The Inner Life of Humanists

I see humanism as having four dimensions; the intrapersonal, the interpersonal, the societal, and the global. We may gravitate toward one dimension or another, but a mature humanism asks us to consider all the dimensions that make up a balanced, whole, humanist lifestance. Here I will focus on the intrapersonal life, which is experiential, emotional, and reflective.

Existentialists like Sartre recommended we be concerned with existence before essence. Consider the statement: “All humans are mortal.” It sounds perfectly rational and true. Now consider, “I am mortal,” which hits a bit closer to home. Lastly, think of what it is to say, “I’m dying.” Note we have moved from the factual, rational, and abstract essence of things, to the personal, emotional, and existential aspects of our being. Many times we get caught up in scientific understanding of the world, but when dealing with the reflective nature of our consciousness we are dealing with truths that have no empirical verification. In other words, there’s no way I can prove I love my wife, suffer shame, or experience ecstasy, but these truths can be more important than the empirically based truths we normally attribute to a reasoned humanist life.

A common criticism of humanists is that, as head-only rationalists, we miss the experiential aspects of religion. I beg to differ. We know that religion survives and thrives based on impulses dictated both by nature and nurture. Certainly humanists resist giving in to the genetic impulse toward supernaturalism, but also toward tribalism, racism, sexism, and authoritarianism amplified by our culture. Even so, there are impulses we can choose to enhance that nurture religion, but are also useful in meeting our goals for a full humanist life. Some might call these the “spiritual” aspects of humanism, which to me is too broad and misleading a term to describe the spectrum of the myriad individual impulses that are unifying and invigorating to human experience.

We don’t need a minister to tell us that we’re missing the awe and wonder of God if we find transcendence not in a mystical ritual but in the emotional experience of an infant’s smile, a hike through deep woods, or when falling in love. We find meanings and purpose, not in a hereafter, but in reverence for simply being part of this amazing world where only we can create meaning and purpose.

Beyond living in the shallows of experience, we can work to become more mindful of the deepest dimensions of what it means to be human: To rejoice and to feel pain, doubt, and fear. To allow joy, love, and ecstasy to animate our lives. Our wounds and joys are in fact what make us fully human.

Socrates likened our inner lives to a chariot pulled by the twin horses of emotion and appetite, and controlled by the rider reason. The horses need some freedom, but the rider must control the chariot’s direction and speed. Similarly, Nietzsche spoke of the Apollonian—the cool, rational and controlled—as opposed to the Dionysian—wild, emotional, and orgiastic. The glory of humanism is that it pulls from both the Enlightenment and the Romantic traditions, balancing heart and mind, reason and compassion. Critical reasoning can blend with our romantic longings.

Our genetic impulses also call us to transformative awareness. Neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga postulates a mental narrating module he calls the “Interpreter” in the left hemisphere of the brain that makes up stories or interpretations of our experience. In the Stone Age, a father sitting around the campfire looking up at the stars made up explanations to his children that became our religious stories, whereas the humanist looks to reason and science to explain the world. Those deep connections, explanations, and experiences, along with a sense of wholeness and oneness with the universe are what humanism can offer our inner lives.